The surprise award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama has touched off an interesting debate on his accomplishments. There is no real dispute that it is still early in President Obama's term, and that he cannot claim any solid, completed achievements such as a treaty or other resolution of an international conflict. Nevertheless, there is significant disagreement, largely on partisan lines, as to whether Obama deserves the award. That suggests that people are using different criteria for determining who is deserving of a peace prize. This disagreement also suggests that many people still do not understand or appreciate the nature of Barack Obama's achievement, and the transformation he has already effected in the course of being elected president.
Whether one supports or is hostile to Obama may spring from two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. The first way is to view the world as comprised of a number of hostile forces that must be overcome. Your mission in this view of the world is to defeat these hostile forces, usually by demonstrating your own superior power. The second way is to view the world as comprised of a number of problems that must be solved. In order to solve those problems, you need to bring together the competing forces that view these problems in different ways, and attempt to find common ground with these differing views. What Barack Obama achieved even before he became president, was to persuade the voters of America that they ought to try viewing the world in a more problem-solving way, instead of an adversarial way. The world view of both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, the two candidates he defeated, comes from the more traditional, combative approach to politics and to governance. Because Barack Obama has been able to bring America around to a more problem-solving, and unifying vision of the future, he has already changed the image of the United States around the world. Note that I am not suggesting that Barack Obama is a pacifist. He has already decided to wage a more vigorous war in Afghanistan, and he also doesn't shy away from fights with political adversaries at home. What I am saying is that Obama's instincts are more conciliatory than adversarial. He would rather bring parties together than try to find ways to divide them.
I think the main reason Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was that he already been able to transform the way Americans view the world, which has in turn changed the way the rest of the world views America. That is not an insignificant accomplishment. I also think that people who feel Obama is undeserving of this award are mainly people who are fundamentally opposed to a problem-solving, unifying vision of the world. They believe that attempting to find common cause with one's adversaries is dangerously naive, that compromise should be scorned, and that the only proper way to deal with opposing views is to fight and defeat them. In other words, people who don't think President Obama deserved the peace prize could be people who are not really on board with the whole peace concept, or who think that the only reliable way to achieve peace is through strength.
My conclusion as to the reasons behind the hostility to the peace award is in part based on comments to my previous post on this topic below, as well as reaction I provoked to comments I made on the Common Sense Political Thought blog, as well as reading the reactions of a number of prominent conservatives. I should note that there are quite a few Obama critics on the left who also view the world in an adversarial manner (for example critics who advocate fighting harder to ram the liberal agenda through the Congress). It is interesting that some of those people also seem wary of embracing the President's receipt of the Peace Prize. (another example here)
Finally, I think that whatever one's degree of skepticism of the Obama approach, people should remember that we are talking about a peace prize, after all. Peace prizes are not generally awarded to successful generals, or others who advocate vanquishing one's enemies on the battlefield, even when those enemies are real and need to be vanquished. There are other awards for recognition of bravery in battle. So whether one fully supports President Obama's transformative vision of the way politics should be conducted, or whether one believes that the president is hopelessly out of touch with reality, maybe we could find some common ground in agreeing that the qualities that the Nobel committee might have been seeking to reward do seem to fit in the peace category.